Copyrighted images used in any media, whether book, magazine, film or video or website, without the appropriate license, can land you in trouble and at worse land you in court. Even if someone else did the work or posted the image for you it makes no difference in law, because ignorance is not a legal defence. Be aware that although some image libraries don’t appear to charge for the images they supply it’s still a good idea to read the small print, because some consumers say they’ve been deliberately misled.
What happens if you publish images without paying the fee for use?
In line with technology, large image libraries such as Getty Images and iStock have a large department of people dedicated to copyright infringement. They use robots to search for images and even parts of images that are being used on the web without the appropriate permissions licences. If an unlicensed image is detected then a letter demanding a payment for infringement of copyright will be sent out. This demand for payment will probably be for a lot more than the cost of the license for the image, but also you will have to remove the image from your website, remove all images from your server, and if it’s printed matter you will have to dump the whole lot and won’t be able to use it.
What is infringement of copyright?
Getty and other companies such as iStock provide digital images that can be used across all media, analogue, print and digital. The UK Copyright Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988 covers the use of digital, scanned, or negative images, the copyright for which belongs to the photographer, with Getty or some other company acting as the photographer’s agent. As it is against the law to use images that are copyrighted without a license, it is therefore essential that you check the copyright status of any image before you use it, both to protect yourself legally and to protect the reputation of your company.
What can happen if you use an unlicensed image?
There have been reports of people receiving what is known as a Settlement Demand letter from Getty Images after the company has detected images that are being used on the web without the appropriate permissions licences. A Settlement Demand Letter can be two things: an order to "cease and desist", which is an invitation to remove the unlicensed image before a more formal demand to assert copyright by suing you or taking you to court is issued. The second sort of Settlement Demand letter is an "invitation" for you to come to an agreement, which will involve you paying a lump sum that is far greater than the value of the image license, and in return you won’t be sued. To see the level of aggression used by Getty Images to claw back lost revenue for copyright infringement, just take a look at some of these letters.
What if I get caught using an unlicensed image?
The moment you’re made aware that you’ve infringed copyright you should remove the image(s) and notify the copyright holder that the image(s) have been removed. Even though ignorance is no defence in law, if you can prove that you removed the image immediately you were made aware you’d infringed copyright a court of law is likely to be more lenient. Should I apologise? Before you phone to apologise check the price for the copyright license for the image(s). If the letter is asking for a lot more than the licence fee for the image(s) point that out and then try calmly to negotiate for a more reasonable settlement. State that you were not aware of the violation, but since having been made aware you have removed the image(s). Do not get angry or threatening with huge organisations like Getty, first because the likes of Getty won’t be threatened by many individuals or organisations and second they will probably be documenting rude, threatening, or unprofessional behaviour ready for the court hearing!
Tips to protect against infringement of copyright
- If you hire a company to develop your website or publish a brochure, book or magazine or make a video or film, insist that all the images are licensed to you. Most image libraries specifically require that an image is licensed to the user of the image and not to a third party.
- Keep all the paperwork together that relates to the image licences.
- Check and note down when the license expires.
- To be totally safe, start taking your own images and create your own image library.
Our final word of advice
Resist the temptation to use images without first checking the copyright status. Always pay the license fee for use. Keep the documents and licence. Lastly, as belt and braces, take out Professional Indemnity Insurance, which will cover you in the event of either oversight or foolishness.